Up until now, the career of Media Ventures/Remote Control graduate Steve Jablonsky has been divisible into three more or less distinct sections of wildly varying quality and enjoyability levels. At the bottom of the ladder we have his scores for horror remakes, which are for the most part unlistenable experiments in dissonant stingers and synthetic droning. Then we have his 'guilty pleasure' zone, headed primarily by Transformers; scores where he pays tribute to the Hans Zimmer of the 90s: power anthems, synthetically pounding action music, neo-classical chord progressions. Enjoyable, but highly derivative. At the top end of the scale is the underappreciated Japanese anime Steamboy, which is and remains one of my absolute favorite scores, and I can't express often enough how I wish Jablonsky would write more music like this.
But now along comes Your Highness, which is a fantasy-comedy film set in medieval times, and for it Jablonsky has provided a score which is nigh impossible to categorize. It offers a wildly eclectic rehash of his career so far - both its positives and its negatives. There's some of Steamboy's adventurous spirit and galloping action music, some rather more difficult tension material out of his horror score remakes and his video game score to Gears of War 2 - and what Jablonsky score would be complete without a handful of power-anthemic building statements from the Transformers playbook? Now take all these ingredients and add in some of the prancing comedy music from Hans Zimmer's recent scores ( Rango, Sherlock Holmes, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ), a touch of rock, a few vocals and a purposefully outdated synthetic overlay which treads closer to Jerry Goldsmith's library of sounds than it does to Media Ventures. This score is so incredibly varied that I think Jablonsky approached this film with tongue firmly lodged in cheek.
Things start out promisingly with the opening track, 'Let Us Quest!' Its first half provides Jablonsky's main theme packaged very nicely in a familiar, but enjoyable building statement with some of Goldsmith's tingling synths in the background. The theme itself won't provide anything new for Jablonsky listeners, with the usual noble horns and male choir very much evoking either the Autobots theme from Transformers or the Imoogi theme from D-War (take your pick), but it moves into a quite lovely interlude on solo violin at 1:20. Then, at 2:08, Jablonsky bursts out into spirited, Celtic-flavored action music, and here is where every Steamboy fan will start salivating. The little percussion fills on medium drums are highly reminiscent of that 2004 score, in a positive way. This high-flying action style continues in 'Goodbye My Tinys', though somewhat disappointingly concluding with the same last minute or so, minus choir.
A third, somewhat singular theme is introduced in 'Isabel the Strong' in surprisingly tender fashion on oboe (yes, oboe! That's right, from Steve Jablonsky!) and then another interlude on flute over gentle guitar strumming. A female vocalist enters two minutes into the cue, and this somewhat ruins an otherwise powerfully dramatic piece of music. Though she restrains herself to cooing at first, her delivery becomes breathier and more 'popified' as the cue continues to build, and I can't help wishing for her to shut up. This theme and style is reprised in ''Til We Meet Again' towards the end of the score. There is another cue with vocalizing on the track, 'The Greatest Most Beautifullest Love Song in All the Land', which features English lyrics sung by the same woman and an intentionally off-key man. It's cute, and displays unexpected humor from the composer, but it's not really listenable.
The action music takes a considerably darker turn in 'The Virgin is Plucked', 'A Fistful of Snakes' and 'Isabel Thrashes', both of which tread closer to the Media Ventures library with the usual string chopping, heavier synthetics (some of which still Goldsmithian) and an ominous choir a la Gears of War 2. 'Not in My Castle' is a truly bizarre, but oddly enjoyable merging of the main theme with the choral mannerisms of Crimson Tide and electronics which are partway Goldsmith, partway Tron: Legacy. The fun 'Playful Secrets!' channels the John Williams of Home Alone, with cooing choirs, light percussion and little brass moments providing a real sense of mysterious mischief.
'Mean Knights and Horsies O My!' is an absolute guilty pleasure of an action cue, and will make your head spin with all the stylistic mannerisms it resurrects. The first half has the relentless pace and dense electronics of Brian Tyler's recent action scores like Battle: Los Angeles, but at 1:38 it throws in a variation on the main theme with those Goldsmithian synths over the top and a more Steamboyish rhythm. Some of the synthetic rips towards the end are so incredibly outdated that it becomes hard to take the cue seriously, but it's a fun ride nonetheless. The climactic, 6.5-minute 'Orgy of Violence' is similarly exhilarating, throwing in a Transformers -esque chanting choir and, in the final minute, even transmutating the main theme's interlude into something that very closely resembles 'Ray's Theme' from Steamboy - almost too closely for comfort, in fact.
There are plenty of other moments of quality that shine through. The rhythmic buildup in 'Kill-Trophy and the Warrior's Birth' is vintage anthemic Jablonsky. The main theme is given a quietly powerful rendition in the second half of ''Tis I, Thadeous the Hero', interrupted by an ominous tolling bell. The pulsing synth in the opening of 'Heroes Unite' is so 80s in style I could hardly believe my ears at first - it sounds like early Alan Silvestri, like The Delta Force or something - but it soon becomes a determined statement of the main theme which is, again, much more enjoyable than I'd have given it credit for at first. The penultimate cue, 'Way of the Warriors', is frustrating in its brevity: following a heraldic, Shrek-like fanfare, an Irish rhythm is struck up, into which the interlude theme bursts out with momentous choral force...lasting all of ten seconds before the track ends. It's not even a complete statement of the theme. The final 'Thadeous' cue nods its head at all sorts of Zimmer scores, going from Jack Sparrow's comedic harpsichord jauntiness to The Dark Knight's pulsating electronic ostinati and back again. The two are surprisingly well integrated, with an excellent transition from the latter to the former at 3:02.
Frustratingly, there are also plenty of cues I could have done without. 'Leezar's Date, Belladonna's Hate' is an inconsequential atmospheric cue. 'Here Comes the Marteetee' makes an unwelcome intrusion into Iron Man territory with wailing distortion guitars - this sort of thing can be very enjoyable when well-done, but it isn't here. 'The Effening', though somewhat interesting in its dissonant crescendo of layered brass, isn't particularly listenable. Worst of all is the score's second-longest cue, 'Labyrinths and Humps', which wouldn't sound at all out of place in one of Jablonsky's horror remake scores. Dissonant stingers and nondescript droning are the rule here.
The most remarkable thing about Your Highness is how perfect a representation it is of the career of Steve Jablonsky. If it's been a frustratingly hit-and-miss career, then this score is an equally hit-and-miss experience on album. It's not a score that one should necessarily listen to in its entirety, for it flits so randomly from style to style and from high to low quality that you could easily lose your mind listening to it. It introduces an extremely strong, Steamboyish orchestral demeanor in the first two action cues, but then devolves to more Media Ventures-esque partially synthetic pounding by its climax, another potential disappointment. It is afflicted by occasional temp-track-itis, most notably the statement of Ray's Theme at the end of 'Orgy of Violence'.
When all is said and done, however, there's no denying that this score shows a lot of promise for Steve Jablonsky's future. It should silence critics who say that Steamboy was a fluke, or a one-hit wonder, for this score quite reassuringly bridges the gap between that score's style and the more familiar Hans Zimmer mannerisms he usually falls back on in his more well-known works such as Transformers. Its sense of humor is surprising and refreshing at times, especially in its humorous use of Jerry Goldsmith-style synthetics. There's around twenty minutes of very solid highlights to be extracted from this score, depending on how tolerant you are of power anthems (hey, I like them okay?).
To sum up: while immensely frustrating at times, this score should, in the end, be counted as a triumph for Jablonsky, who has finally proven that Steamboy was not just a fluke.